Last year’s Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) ushered in a new era of gaming accessibility, but not necessarily in a convincing way. What Microsoft’s specially designed plate of a controller delivered in options and openness, especially for gamers who can’t use standard gamepads, the device lost in clarity.
The $99 XAC only comes with two handy buttons for standard PC and console games, and Microsoft said it was by design so that gamers with special needs could connect preferred buttons and control options to a set of 19 plugs. This was great news for anyone familiar with the wild world of accessible gaming or who already had extra attachable buttons. But problems arose, accessory maker Logitech told Ars Technica, as XAC’s good press and popularity drew new, confused people to the fold — as well as official Microsoft Stores.
“We talked to Microsoft retail, to people in the Microsoft Stores, and they kept saying, ‘We don’t know what to recommend to people,'” Logitech Product Manager Mark Starrett told Ars Technica. “People buy an XAC and then ask, ‘What? [buttons] belong here?’ The man in the store cannot estimate the needs. The caretaker doesn’t know [from a gaming standpoint]or.”
Change from “variable” to a constant
That changes this week with the Logitech Adaptive Gaming Kit, a $99 bundle that begins to answer that basic question for Logitech’s estimated “80%” of gamers with special needs. Logitech offered Ars Technica a pre-briefing on the bundle before sending us a sample set, so we can’t speak to the build quality or whether it’s a worthy purchase.
Still, based on my testing and research since the XAC’s launch, I’m already forced to applaud Logitech’s launch, at least in terms of apparent value and usability.
The crux of the Adaptive Gaming Kit is a series of 12 discrete buttons that connect via XAC’s 3.5mm ports. It’s easier to parse them as a list:
- Three round buttons, 2.6″ diameter
- Three round buttons, 1.4 inch diameter
- Four “light-touch” buttons
- Two “variable” triggers
Most articles on XAC’s launch feature photos of these kinds of buttons, with the idea that users with different disabilities or needs would buy them all a la carte to add more functionality than the XAC and a nearby standard Xbox One controller. But it doesn’t take long to hit a $99 spending threshold with 3-4 buttons, which barely covers all the features of a standard game. On a pure price point, Logitech has done the right thing. Target XAC users will probably need no less than four discrete buttons, so you’ll save money compared to the rest of the fray by going with Logitech’s set.
In addition, Logitech includes two Velcro boards and relevant connection cables in this bundle. XAC users will likely want to mount additional buttons on these types of boards so they can remain more stable near a controlling body part of their choice: a foot, a fingerless hand, even a head. And they’re a perfect freebie bonus for a set that’s already reasonably priced.
To top it off, the included “variable” triggers play nicely with XAC’s pair of analog 3.5mm ports. Most 3.5mm controller accessories only provide binary “on/off” switch functionality. That’s fine for most controller functions, but not one that Logitech identified as a popular genre for gamers with special needs: racing.
“If you look around you” [special needs] market… I haven’t found a good replacement for a variable trigger,” says Starrett. “If you throttle and brake, forza, things like that, there was no solution. Just binary digital buttons. So we have two in the kit. I am a racer, as are many people we have met. They want to play these games and struggle with this insane, 100% throttle.”
From 200 joysticks to 99 dollars
Logitech says this project started when Microsoft started asking for loaner joysticks a few years ago to test a secret project. (Starrett says they gave over 200 joysticks to that target before figuring out what the XAC actually was.) Logitech’s design team was on the mold, connection protocols, and launch plans for the XAC prior to launch, but the team did it not. Don’t realize how many steps were left open for potential buyers, in terms of additional buttons, until after launch.
“I’m not going to read blindly” [the Xbox team]’s positions, but traditionally they don’t make a lot of peripherals,” Starrett says. “They make their controllers and consoles. They don’t want to be in the peripheral business at this level, I think. Meanwhile, we are very knowledgeable in this field. We’ve done a lot with Microsoft, we’ve been supporting their platforms for years. It was something natural [to team up on an adaptive controller bundle]† They might have made their own if we hadn’t said, ‘We’re going to do this and work with you.'”
That’s why Microsoft handed Logitech its Rolodex for game researchers and experts with special needs, including the British nonprofit Special Effect, a rehabilitation center in the Mt. Sinai Hospital and XAC engineering lead Bryce Johnson. From then on, Logitech spent the next year designing the controllers while “cutting the profit margins” to bring the price of the bundle to $99. The resulting bundle is available for purchase now at logitechg.com and most US Microsoft Store locations; it’s coming to European Microsoft Stores “if not the first day, then shortly after.”